Special Reports

Crews set fire to oil; new leak found

Scrambling to head off looming ecological disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday set fire to an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico — already more than twice the size of Manatee County — from a blown-out drilling rig spewing some 5,000 barrels of crude a day.

The Coast Guard says a new leak has been found at the site where an oil platform exploded and sank. Officials had been saying for days that it 1,000 barrels a day had been leaking.

The slick’s leading edge drifted toward the salt marshes of the Louisiana Delta, only 20 miles and three days from a fragile wetland rich with shrimp, crabs and crayfish.

But response teams in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were carefully watching shifting winds that could ultimately steer the 2,000-square-mile blob just about anywhere on the Gulf Coast.

The spill was near the Gulf’s powerful “loop current,” which could potentially suck in the brown goo and spit it back out in the form of tar balls, fouling the Florida Keys and beaches of Miami-Dade and Broward. But the Coast Guard’s highest-ranking officer said South Florida appeared to be out of the impact zone — at least for now.

“I’m not going to rule anything out, but it’s pretty remote,” said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, which is directing efforts to contain the spreading spill while BP Exploration and Production struggles to seal its well 5,000 feet below the ocean.

Allen, in an interview with The Miami Herald’s Editorial Board Wednesday, said if the well can’t be capped quickly, the accident could potentially surpass the notorious Exxon Valdez — which dumped 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 — as the largest discharge in North American history.

BP, which operated the floating rig that exploded last week, killing 11 workers, has failed in efforts to close a shutoff valve with robotic subs. Deploying a dome to collect and pump leaking oil has worked in shallower coastal areas, but never in such deep water, and could take weeks. The permanent fix, drilling a relief well, could take months.

There also is concern that the damaged wellhead could give way, spewing up to 100,000 gallons a day from the site about 50 miles south of Venice, La.

“If we lose the integrity of that wellhead, it could be a catastrophic spill,” Allen said.

The Coast Guard was already treating the spill as a worst-case scenario, Allen said, putting coastal crews on notice from Venice to Pensacola and using every tool in the slick-fighting book. Nearly 50 vessels were working the spill, either skimming oil or spraying dispersants to break it up.